Protecting Our Children: A Fight for Religious Freedom in Texas Schools

March 22, 2024fredi Bleeker Franks

Once, finding me crying outside of the cafeteria, a friendly counselor asked what was wrong. When I tried to explain, she said to me, “You don’t have to be anybody other than who you are. You’re pretty special, and those other kids are sure missing out.” 

I have remembered those words for a very long time.

When I was a little girl, my father was a very successful manager for a group of discount stores called Hills Department Stores. Because he was so successful, we moved a lot – like, really a lot. My mom followed him from small Ohio town to small Ohio town, which meant that I went to a lot of different schools when I was growing up. One thing remained constant though - and that was the feeling that I was different because I was Jewish. More than once, children who had befriended me at the beginning of the school year were not allowed to play with me or even sit with me on the school bus once I told them that I didn’t believe in Santa Claus, or when my mom realized that the Saturday night sleepovers were just a ruse to get me to go to church with them on Sunday. My mom never told me why I could no longer stay overnight at my friends’ houses, but I figured it out by myself. My parents tried to explain to me that people who told me that I was never going to heaven were well-meaning, but it was difficult for me to understand. I was proud of being Jewish and didn’t understand why my friends’ parents were so concerned with my religion, and whether I had accepted Jesus.

Fast forward to 2023: Texas Legislature passed The Chaplains Bill, or Senate Bill 763 - which was a piece of legislation that allows chaplains to be hired in school districts to provide student support services or to volunteer in schools for similar purposes. School districts in Texas had until March 1, 2024, to opt in or out of having unlicensed chaplains in their schools. Under the law Gov. Greg Abbott signed in August as Chapter 23 of the Texas Education Code states, chaplains employed or volunteering in the district are allowed to provide suicide prevention, intervention and postvention, mental health support, behavioral health support, and create programs for overall student support.

This bill was pushed through by members of the National School Chaplain Association, a Christian activist group with the explicit purpose of “putting Jesus back into schools” that is now pushing similar legislation in many states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah. The purpose of these bills is to introduce Christianity and “Biblical guidance” into our public schools and to blur the line between church and state, a democratic principle that we, as Reform Jews, hold dear to our hearts.

As the chair of RAC-TX, I work closely with our Religious Action Center organizer, Emily Bourgeois, who alerted me to this bill. With Emily as the lead, we quickly organized a campaign to educate Texans about this bill, and the consequences of allowing chaplains to serve as counselors in our schools. Working with a diverse group, including Texas Impact, BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty), Interfaith Alliance, the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Federations, National Council for Jewish Women, and WRJ members across Texas, we worked in an interfaith, interreligious partnership to challenge the Chaplains’ bill in the 25 largest school districts in the state. RAC-TX concentrated its efforts in the 10 districts with the highest Jewish populations, which we are proud to say opted out of having chaplains in their school districts. We organized phone calls, wrote op-eds for local newspapers, and appeared at school board meetings to speak against opting into this change and to advocate for our children. Our strategy team met weekly, over Zoom, to chart our course.  We are proud of the work that we did, and the coalitions that we built.
I imagine myself, as a young girl, being told that I was not going to get into heaven and that the child I played with yesterday was no longer allowed to speak to me. I think about what would have happened if a chaplain had come across me crying outside the cafeteria instead of a licensed, trained counselor. How might that have affected me? Would I still be proud to be Jewish?
Emily spoke at a recent press conference on the success of the campaign. In part, she said:

“We are taught in our tradition that it is our responsibility as a collective to teach our values to our children. By protecting our children from proselytization today in the state of Texas, we are fulfilling those commandments and are ensuring that the only people who will have a say in our children's religious education are the parents, clergy, and Jewish educators who lead our community and work tirelessly every day to instill our values in these kids.

“I'm standing here today on behalf of the hundreds of Jewish clergy and lay leaders from across the state who came together over the last six months to advocate for our children— many of them showing up to their school boards for the first time. It is because of them that we are here today. It is because of them that we won.”

Emily and I will be at the 2024 Women's Fried Leadership Conference, presenting on a different topic, I encourage you to find us, to talk to us, and to do all you can to make sure that this insidious attempt to thwart the separation of church and state does not gain a foothold in your state. After all, as Emily said at the press conference, “If we can win in Texas, we can win anywhere." 

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